Black Mass tells the true-life story of James "Whitey" Bulger as he transforms from a small-time crook to the crime kingpin of South Boston. It also tells the story of one of Bulger's friends growing up, John Connolly, and his return to South Boston as a mid-level FBI agent. Their relationship makes up the bulk of the film, while never becoming developed enough to carry any emotional weight.
A film about the relationships between "good" men with power and the crooks they're supposed to protect us from is sound, but Black Mass' script never gives us a window into the origins of the loyalty anyone feels for Whitey Bulger. The entire emotional resolution of the film hinges on the loyalty and adulation that John Connolly feels for Whitey, which brings about the biggest misstep of the movie.
As Boston crime movies like The Departed, Mystic River, or The Town have taught us, it's that loyalty and brotherhood mean everything to the Irish Mob. John Connolly used Whitey as an informant to further his career but, in doing so, gave Whitey carte blanche to murder, sell drugs, and run South Boston. But it never feels like Connolly is doing it to use Bulger, it's played like he genuinely cares about the man due to something that happened when Connolly was a child. We're never given any hint as to what that event was, so it makes the amount of lying and criminal behavior Connolly gets involved in unbelievable. Whitey doesn't seem to have any friends, let alone some kid from Southie who became a fed, so their entire relationship, while not seeming contrived, doesn't create any drama since we have no idea of the emotional stakes involved. And this almost derails the entire film, as it is basically the narrative thrust of the entire picture.
Luckily, the performances of the central duo are strong, with Johnny Depp giving his most focused and controlled work since The Rum Diary. Even though the film somewhat plays as a Whitey Bulger bio-pic, the script still paints him as a cypher, but Depp gives that cypher a soul and underplays the role beautifully. While Joel Edgerton has been solidly putting in good work for years now, his work as John Connolly is a revelation. His work is the opposite of Depp's in every way, giving the G-Man a swagger from his core all the way to how he blinks his eyes, and it never becomes showy. It is a very calculated performance showing off some of the best technical acting of the year.
W. Earl Brown and Jesse Plemons almost steal the film as two of Bulger's enforcers and with just a bit more screen time, they would have. Dakota Johnson and Julianne Nicholson are both phenomenal as Bulger and Connolly's respective spouses, but once their orbit from the men disappears, they are dropped from the film entirely.
Black Mass also suffers from a complete lack of a climax. Letters on a screen telling us what became of all the real life bad guys does not make for the satisfying resolution of a film. While anyone with passing familiarity of the story of Whitey Bulger knows about his arrest, there could have been an artful way to handle it; instead, the film feels like it runs out of gas before puttering to a stop.
The film is well made, handsomely photographed, and nearly impeccably acted, but the lack of tension, clarity, and climax left this viewer feeling like he watched something unworthy of the performances given.
Directed by Scott Cooper
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16